Monday, September 4, 2017

New Relationships; New Perspectives

New experiences can open your eyes; and making relationships with people from entirely different cultures can help you see the world from a fresh perspective. I have lived my entire life in Ghana, hearing myths about 'the white people' (and their supposedly dangerous nature), which I never questioned. This 'fear', passed down from our fore-fathers, has stopped some people from travelling outside of Ghana. Some people are hesitant to leave, even for the sake of their education – with some parents expressing concern for the safety of their children. I have heard of many friends declining scholarships to study in European countries for this reason. I believe that such misconceptions have prevented many in Ghana (and other African countries) from fulfilling their full potential in our small world.

My counterpart Robert, a friend of mine, and I.
But being part of International Service, and working alongside a diverse group of volunteers, has taught me to question such myths. I told my counter-part, Robert, some of the popular stories, such as that there is only one TV Channel in the UK; or that people 'make love' in public – this was met with a mixture of laughter and confusion. It's easy to see how such ideas can spread in rural Ghana: with most people living their lives without travelling or interacting with people from other countries. For this reason, other people, particularly Europeans, are viewed as very alien, perhaps even possessing super-powers. Since learning that my perspective may be wrong, I've become very interested in learning from other people's culture: and I have encountered plenty of interesting differences!

For example, the general UK attitudes towards marriage, are certainly surprising – I was shocked to find that some people wish to marry with no intention of having children. I doubt this would ever happen in Ghana; as infertility is one of the most common reasons for divorce.  In fact, the UK attitude towards the family and community is almost entirely different: some often prioritise work and individual needs. For this reason there are less clearly defined roles for men and women; women for example aren’t as stigmatised for choosing not to breastfeeding their child, or for their virginity status– but are instead given the choice and are viewed more as equal contributors to the economy. Throughout the placement I've learnt to question these taken-for-granted gender stereotypes, even if accepting this means I have to (reluctantly) do more cooking and cleaning! In everyday interactions I've noticed that the UK volunteers also have different priorities.

In the UK, people have a more direct way of talking; they are not prone to keeping secrets; and unlike in Ghana, they place little significance on which family they come from. Unexpectedly, I've learnt from the UK Volunteers the importance of being aware of your language: I now realise that it is insensitive to refer to someone simply by their disability, be it mental or physical. Myself and the other in-country volunteers had become used to calling those suffering from mental illness 'mad' or ‘crazy’, however we now understand that this can belittle people and ignore their condition, which only worsens the stigma they face in society. Similarly, nobody is just 'blind', they are people with a 'visual impairment'.  Such insensitive language, even amongst some government officials, is a major issue in Ghana; and I hope to spread this message to others; because everyday actions, such as inclusive language, ultimately helps integrate the most vulnerable of our society into the community. In terms of social change, I've also realised the importance of social policy in bringing about positive change.

Government policies towards education can have a huge impact on society: in the UK I was surprised to hear there are very few illiterate people – this is because the government provides free education for students, right up until their first degree. In Ghana, the main reason some people drop out of education is due to financial restrictions. Education is very important in empowering those throughout society; and I now strongly believe the young people of today should lobby for better funding in this department.  To make people aware of social issues we need to change our work-style, which has changed considerably during my placement.

The "loveliest" team L.I.F.E ever!
I have definitely learned to be more assertive – a skill I've noticed helps with group communication, and helps to achieve our goal more effectively. I've learnt that unlike in school, we should not just wait to be called upon, but instead actively contribute when required: this is challenging as it involves constantly being prepared and informed; but it keeps me engaged.

I had heard great things about International Service, but the placement so far has exceeded my expectations. As someone who has never left Ghana before, ICS has been an eye-opening adventure. I've learnt a lot of things, and despite being more scientifically minded, I have become interested in social action and how it can change our society for the better. Going forward I'm excited to learn more and teach others in my local community to make a practical and lasting change.

By Abaaween Raphael

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